Climb that Mountain
Climb That Mountain
Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 26 February 2017
Mt. 17 v.1-9 (The Transfiguration)
We’ve all had mountain top experiences. When the sun is bright, the light is shining and you are able to see for miles and miles and often see something for the first time that sometimes can change your life.
During one such time I realised that I needed to regard and respect every living person irrespective of their apparent status, age, ability, sexuality, or social position; whether they were poor or rich, whether they were in prison or free, young or old, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, atheist, agnostic or no faith.
This is tremendously liberating because it breaks down all false barriers and brings a feeling that there are no limits.
This, I believe, is the strong message that comes through in a story from Matthew’s gospel, known as the Transfiguration. Like much of the New Testament you can’t understand it without looking at it through the eyes of the Old Testament (OT). That’s why we read from Exodus preceding the gospel.
Much of what we read in the New Testament about the life and teaching of Jesus is written in typical Jewish style. Remember that the early Christians were Jewish, faithful Jews, Elders, Rabbis, Pharisees. Paul describes himself in Philippians 3.v5 as “circumcised, the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee with zeal”. Now in reading the stories of Jesus, we must acknowledge that the writers were using the Rabbinic, Jewish style of storytelling. This style of recording was known as Midrash which was first identified by British Professor of Biblical Studies Michael Goulder. This is the regular Rabbinic practice of recording something new, but only doing so through the old images and stories of the past. This would give a greater status to what was being written and would be fully understood by the Jewish/early Christians.
This Rabbinic style of storytelling would filter stories of the present through memories of the past as written down in the Hebrew holy writings; predominantly what we now call the Old Testament.
So, Jesus going up into a high mountain with some very special close friends and experiencing a supernatural experience resembled Moses doing the same in Exodus and the writers built into that revered figures of Jewish history who had conquered death, including Moses and Elijah who went to heaven in amazing ways like Elijah who was carried off in a fiery chariot. This was to link Jesus with that miraculous concept of conquering death. So as with Moses there was a mountain that Jesus ascended, He was accompanied by three closest disciples, Peter, James and John as Moses was with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, with both of them there were bright clouds which overshadowed them, and the Lord spoke from heaven to both the Moses trio and the Jesus trio. Also as with Moses when they returned his face shone and their clothes were ‘bright as light”, just as on that original Mount Sinai.
Throughout Jewish history light and fire were important symbols. So the idea that the light of God had come to Jesus was just a natural continuation of that Jewish tradition and the light would shine on him (just like Moses) and his face shone.
This was not a literal story about a literal moment in Jesus’ life, it was not meant to be taken literally, it was a well-known method of Rabbinic story telling conveying message and meaning and demonstrating the present through the symbols of the past.
But because it’s not literal that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got powerful messages in it. What are they?
Well firstly there is the message of:
- Firstly, uplift/inspiration and encouragement.
Matthew’s gospel was probably written about AD 85/90 probably compiled by a Jewish Rabbi trying to make sense of what was happening in his Jewish world. In AD 70 the great symbol of Jewish faith, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. He had seen Xians persecuted. His world was full of turmoil and horror. He so wanted to show that Jesus was foretold in the OT and like other OT characters overcame adversity and death.
So this story drawn from the OT is about lifting those original disciples who were dragged down by fear into glorious light. Jesus’ face shone. All Jews would recall the words in Esdras in the promise to the righteous “Their faces shall shine like the sun”.
- Secondly, there is the message of recognising the importance of stillness. Peter’s first reaction was to build three tabernacles…one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. These tabernacles were like holy tents. Peter, the man of action, he wanted to do something, get on with stuff.
We’ve all been there. We need to do something. Be seen to be doing stuff. But Jesus did not respond to this for there is time for stillness, there is time for contemplation, even for wonder, for reverence. Psalm 46 “Be still and know that I am God”. Sometimes we are too busy trying to do something when we would be better to be silent, to be listening which in turn prepares us for properly informed decisions and consequent action. Sometimes I’m a bit like Peter here. I hate reading instructions! My wife is a big IKEA fan and often I’m confronted with cardboard flat packs and an Allan key. I just charge ahead and many times have to take the half built construction to pieces again as I’ve not thought about the sequence…which of course I would have noticed if I’d bothered to read the instructions.
Remember on occasions to step back, consider, reflect and read the instructions!
- The third message is despite what I’ve just said
There is a strong converse. Because after he intended to build the holy places he wanted so much to stay in that holy moment. He wished it to be prolonged. He didn’t want to go down to the everyday and common things again. He wanted for ever to remain in the sheen of glory.
This is a feeling which we all know. There are moments of intimacy, of serenity, of peace, spiritual moments. We wish to prolong these but as A.H. McNeil says “The Mountain of Transfiguration is always more enjoyable than the daily grind”.
This is a strong message to the church which finds it so easy to stay in the cloistered confines of religious secrecy and isolation. I am reminded of the prayer of Susanna Wesley, “Help me Lord to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church or the closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but everywhere I am in thy presence. The moment of glory does not exist for its own sake; it exists to clothe the common things with a radiance they never had before”.
Sometimes this light is instant. It’s a light filled moment. It’s an instant realisation or sometime it just creeps up on you. I walk my dog Oscar every morning and because I travel in from the hills I have a fairly long drive and leave early. This means a very early dog walk. We start off in the dark with torch, but somewhere about half way through hardly without noticing the light creeps up on you and then its daylight.
But when it is instant it’s mind blowing! For me my ordination was one such moment. My wedding and birth of my children were others.
And so light illuminates our life and is uplifting and inspirational, yes we’ve reached that mountain top.
But there might be yet another mountain to climb; the journey of which is not light filled. During which there will be stumbling or help required to get to the mountain top. But it’s still worth doing to yet again see a glorious future.
But sometimes that wonderful euphoria evaporates and you find yourself not at the top, but right at the bottom of the valley. A wonderful light filled wedding day contrasted with the darkness and pain of a divorce court. A parents multi candle-lit birthday cake set alongside the coldness of a crematorium with only a faded photo to hold on to, standing on the gold medal podium of an Olympic platform like Grant Hacket or because of an inability to cope with being ordinary again staring into the misery of a drug rehabilitation centre or prison cell. Time and time again we hear of people who are slipping from the peak. Remember Ben Cousins, Marilyn Monroe, Maria Carey, George Best and Kate Moss.
But ever closer than that are those people we know who fall, who lose loved ones, who are stressed, who are under severe pressure. They’re all around us; even now.
Remember the words of Martin Luther King Junior; let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain shall be laid low and I’m not worried because I have been to the mountain top.
That is why we all who know the top and bottom so well have the task of a Himalayan Sherpa to help others to get back on to the mountain.
I appeal to each one of you to reach out to people who have fallen a bit and help them find themselves, like the Psalmist in the valley of the shadow of death and pain and suffering and isolation and lovelessness. In Australia we’re so good at unthinkingly just casually saying “G’day, how are you” and too receiving without thought the standard “Good”. Many times that single word uttered automatically can just be a cover to hide some real suffering. In all our relationships we should go beyond the superficial. Help carry that backpack, help with the climb, and provide oxygen for those with a difficult climb. And then break through those clouds and scale the peak together. And how much brighter it will be if we can see each other’s face shining.